Leading New Zealand artist Robin White is looking forward to a different kind of family reunion this
weekend, when a 30-year retrospective exhibition of her works goes on show at Aratoi. Now living in Masterton, she talked to
HUGH BARLOW about the experiences that have coloured her palette.
MERCENARIES, missionaries and misfits: The three types, according to legend, who end up living under a
palm-thatched roof on a Pacific Island atoll. At least, thats what the island-dwellers like to say.
The story is told by artist Robin White and her husband Mike Fudakowski, who shifted to Masterton in 1999 after
17 years living the island life in Kiribati. They laugh at the prospect of being thought mercenaries and although it was their
Bahai faith that led them to Kiribati, Robin says the missionary tag is hardly fitting either.
Misfits? That option doesnt get mentioned, which leads you to suspect its the one youre supposed to settle
on. But its hardly suitable either. After a career that saw her burst into prominence as part of Parematas Bottle
Creek scene immortalised by Sam Hunt before shifting to Dunedin, then to Kiribati and now here, its clear that Robin
White is the opposite of a misfit. She can fit anywhere, including smack in the middle of a Masterton suburb. So why Masterton
and not one of the regions like Nelson or Coromandel with their well-established arty communities? It would
seem artificial to me to deliberately seek the exclusive company of other artists.
So ordinary old Masterton it is, and for a very ordinary reason. Two of her three children were born in Kiribati
far more enjoyable than it was in Dunedin, even if did mean having to chase the dog out of the delivery room
and they had reached the age where education became problematic. A very close friend in Kiribati, who the children
regarded as an aunt, had moved to New Zealand and married a Masterton man, and the children were sent over for schooling.
Separation was a wrench and the parents soon followed.
As the children settled into a totally new environment, mum had to readjust and get down to work. In one sense, the domestic
upheaval opened up professional opportunities. I was coming back to place that was different, and of course I was
different from when I left New Zealand, White says. In a way, I was coming back as an outsider; it was like
arriving in a foreign land.
She began looking into the history of the Wairarapa valley and was intrigued by the story of Featherston and its camps. Her
father had fought in World War I so there was a sense of connection to the training camp that recruits passed
through before being shipped to the trenches of France.
But what really caught me was the Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, she says. I went to the heritage museum
and looked at the artworks they produced. The art was the response of outsiders to that place and I was interested, as an
outsider, to their response. It became a gateway for me, to look through the eyes and thoughts of the men imprisoned
More than a year of research and work has resulted in a haunting, 6m-long, 12-panel painting that captures the straw-coloured
dryness of a classic Wairarapa summer and weaves through it Japanese elements that make the so-very familiar landscape seem
oddly alien. A hawk flies high, making it easy to imagine the prisoners who White was told would spend summer days lying on
their backs in the long grass watching the harriers soar freely overhead. Its as if the work has emerged to act as a
companion piece to the 17th century haiku poem on a plaque at the memorial to the camp: Behold the summer grass/All that
remains of the dreams of warriors.
Japanese characters in the painting reinforce the feeling that this is an outsiders view. I wanted to include
Japanese script because I wanted some element that could be seen but not understood, White says. Which in turn,
I associate with events at the camp.
She says she soon became aware the subject of the camp remains touchy with some people in the region but was not deterred
from her exploration. Old wounds may remain, she says, but theres a human element that exists beyond all that. It
is the commonality of humanity that interests me.
Its an interest thats been with her her whole life. In 1948, when she was 2, her parents became the first
couple in New Zealand to become members of the Bahai Faith, a conversion that in part stemmed from her fathers
World War I experiences. In the trenches he could hear the German priests blessing the German troops in their trenches
thats how close to each other they were and that undid any belief he had in the church as an instrument
to resolve conflict.
Her father, Albert Tikitu White, a carpenter of Ngati Awa background, returned home from France convinced that war was
no answer to any problem and became a committed advocate of peace. For the young Robin growing up in Auckland, the
differences between her and school friends went far beyond the fact she lived in the only house in Epsom that had a huge
kumara patch on which, she jokes, I was the slave worker every day. It wasnt really until senior
school or art school that I felt more in tune with my peers, she says. I was brought up in a house surrounded
by concepts and ideas that other kids werent familiar with. I was seeing and hearing things that were totally alien
to other kids my age.
My father loved education. The house was full of books. He loved history and knowing what was going on in the
world social changes, nuclear issues, peace issues ... these were the things that were talked about at the dinner
Her father was a member of the Peace Council and White says she stills remembers vividly being taken to a council meeting
when she was about 10 or 11. They showed a film of Hiroshima, taken by somebody who went in straight after it was
bombed. It was very raw, black and white film of the aftermath: There were people with flesh peeling off in strips, blind
birds flying around crashing into things. Again, not something many young New Zealand children were looking at in
the 1950s. Ive had nuclear nightmares ever since. Those images still resonate.
As well as being thankful to her parents for raising her in
a climate of tolerance and social awareness, she appreciates
the support they gave when she decided to pursue art as a career.
It was a decision that had been looming since an impossible
age about 11 or 12, I must have been showing
a lot of interest in drawing and painting; someone gave me a
book about art how to draw, how to paint and I
remember reading that an artist always goes about drawing things
and I decided thats what I was going to do so I got myself
a sketch book that I carried around.
The earliest sketch she has comes from October, 1959 and is
called something like the Coromandel Ranges from
the Back Steps of Uncle Harolds House, she
says, laughing at the grandness of her 13-year-old self.
She pursued art at Epsom Girls Grammar under the tutelage of
May Smith, well known in Auckland art circles, but a family
move saw her at school in Raglan in the fifth form, where she
found herself in an art class of one. Then in the sixth
and seventh forms I went back to Epsom as a boarder and was
with May Smith again. It was she who ensured I followed a career
path that would take me to art school. I was very lucky
to have parents who were supportive. Never did they give any
indication that art was a frivolous career; quite the contrary:
They were very excited about it.
From 1965 to 1967 she studied at the Elam School of Fine Arts,
where the tutors including Colin McCahon. The next year she
enrolled at Auckland Teachers College. A meeting that year with
Sam Hunt led her to Paremata, a teaching job at Mana College
and a small cottage at Bottle Creek, where she stayed until
shifting to the Otago Peninsula in 1971. That remained home
until 1982 when she, Mike and their first child made the move
For an artist, it was literally a change of scene the
familiar rugged New Zealand landscape was replaced by tiny atolls
barely 4m above sea level; instead of a backdrop of hills and
bush, there was a vast blue vista of sea and sky. White says
shes an artist who begins with what she sees and as she
and her family immersed themselves in Kiribti life, that became
the focus of her works.
A fire in her studio in 1996 made her even more of an island
artist. I lost all the tools of trade and the materials
that I relied on. In Kiribati, you cant just go down to
the art shop and restock so I decided to carry on, relying only
on what was available locally. I picked up the threads of ideas
Id been working on and continued with local materials. The shift from canvas and print to
traditional woven textiles
was not straightforward.
I had no skills in weaving so I had to work collaboratively. She enjoyed the experience, and has since repeated
it with a
series of works in tapa done in conjunction with a Fijian friend.
What interests me is the space between cultures and the
points where they meet, where overlap and integration can happen, she says.
Works from the islands feature prominently in the touring retrospective
exhibition that opens this weekend at Aratoi. It has been curated
by the Hocken Library in Dunedin, which owns many of Whites
works, and includes others from private and public collections,
and was shown at Poriruas Pataka gallery as part of this
years New Zealand Festival.
Masterton is the second stop on the exhibitions tour.
Aratoi director Richard Arlidge says the fact White lives in
the town helped Aratoi jump the queue Palmerston North,
Wanganui, Napier, Oamaru and Dunedin have to wait and
wouldnt have come to Masterton at all had it not been
for the new gallery. He says hes delighted to be hosting
it, saying that to see 30 years of work in one space is to truly
appreciate the marks White has left on her artistic journey.
There is a narrative quality to her work that has endured, he says. And when you get them together, you
how personal her stories are and how by reflecting her experiences,
we can all see how weve all moved over time.
For her part, White views the exhibition as a family
reunion. Its the first time Ive been
able to see such a widely representative group of my artworks
in one place at one time, and I see a dialogue between them.
There is definitely a family gathering feeling although
they are all different, theres a genetic stamp.